by Diane Helfrich, August 2021

Once a child enters our lives, we start thinking about the years to cometheir first words and steps turn into school, graduation, and college, and then, we hope, a successful launch to adulthood. Part of how well our child negotiates these steps has to do with who they spend the most time with, what they read, take in through media and games, and, most importantly, what they are taught., One of my favorite Christian leadership authors, John Maxwell, says, “Talent is a gift, but character is a choice.” Let’s look at the difference between a traditional school and a homeschool in its effect on character development. 

Who does your child have the most association with beginning at age five or six? In a traditional school, they are placed in a room with twenty or thirty students of the same age and one or two adults for roughly seven to eight hours a day. They will likely interact with other adults throughout the week as they go to art, music, PE, or the library, but most of their time is in the classroom with same-aged kids who have the same-aged social skills. This situation will likely be the norm for the next thirteen years. Think of the behaviors learned there. Sure, there are many well-behaved kids, and the teacher is doing her best, but there are also mean kids, bored kids, kids from families with very different social expectations than yours, kids that hate school, and kids that say things you really don’t want to hear. The majority of behaviors our children absorb come from people in their environment—social learning.

According to Frontiers for Young Minds, there are a couple of types of social learning. One stems from watching others, observing their choices and actions and the ensuing repercussions of those actions, be they good or bad. A second type of social learning focuses on how people behave. It’s where we begin to understand the concepts of trustworthiness and believability. Who backs us up? Who comes to our aid? Who betrays us? Between these types of learning, we decide how to act and how to interpret our world. Now, let’s think back to the classroom where our kids learn these critical concepts primarily from other kids at roughly the same maturity level.

It’s also not just who we hang with, but the amount of negative behavior around us that forms our attitudes. According to Very Well Mind, “Because negative information causes a surge in activity in a critical information processing area of the brain, our behaviors and attitudes tend to be shaped more powerfully by bad news, experiences, and information.” That doesn’t bode well if you are around negative behaviors! We are, unfortunately, drawn to bad behavior. If we are drawn to it and around it, there is a strong likelihood that we will absorb it.

Now, let’s look at homeschooling. Who is the primary association with? It’s probably Mom or Dad and some siblings. Then, hopefully, there is a homeschool group or co-op where we meet with others maybe once a week or so and may even have a more traditional classroom environment. There is also our church, the library, the homeschool chess group, the soccer team, etc. There are significantly more adults in all of these not-at-home activities because pretty much every child has a parent there. There are preschoolers mixed with elementary, blended with middle schoolers, even combined with high schoolers. So, in the week of a homeschooled student, most of the time will be with family, and group time will be with a range of ages and other adults instead of mostly same-aged kids. Social learning occurs at a more advanced level because of the rich mix of people—which influences the ability to relate to people of various ages. In comparison, would you prefer your child learn social behavior from kids the same age over whom you have no control, or would you rather they learn social behavior from you and adults you choose and trust? With traditional schooling, it’s not that parents don’t have influence, but the waking hours at home are significantly less than the hours they spend with peers at school.

Of course, it goes far beyond just social learning. In your homeschool, you have the opportunity to mold character in the framework of your beliefs. You choose curricula that support your belief system.  If you are a Christian, you can weave those values into your daily work with your children—you teach values and set the expectations. You can raise your children knowing the importance of sharing and providing service to others. You have time that the school system doesn’t have to talk about the value of good character and what it means in relationships with others. In your homeschool, you may have more ability to build strong relationships with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and close family friends and reinforce the values of respect and caring through time spent together. In your homeschool, you, as the parent, decide and teach what constitutes good character.

In my article about academic success earlier in this blog series, I fronted research showing adults who have been homeschooled are statistically more successful, participate in more community service, participate in civic responsibilities such as elections, and tend to be more likely to have strong family values and beliefs of their parents (nheri). Why? Because social learning is taking place in the realm where the values you express through daily living are most prevalent—your home! They are modeling you. In hindsight, I feel like my children’s success is far more about who we were as parents than about what we asked them to learn. We value hard work, honesty, integrity, responsible financial management, respect for others, family mealtime… as do they! Even if we didn’t intentionally teach that, they observed it and modeled it, as did most of the people we surrounded ourselves with outside of our home.

Yes, what surrounds us affects our character. We must take care in our decisions about what our children are exposed to in life. Finally, Proverbs 13:20 says, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm.”